SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge scolded a federal prosecutor Wednesday for refusing to take a stand on whether Pacific Gas and Electric should be placed under more stringent probation conditions for failing to meet required safety targets.
“Are you just going to let California burn up because the offender here is running wild over the people of California,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said. “You shrug your shoulders and say, ‘We can’t do anything about it?’”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Stern said his office only has expertise in identifying and prosecuting federal crimes, not fashioning probation terms such as those proposed by Alsup last month. The judge has proposed forcing PG&E to hire enough workers to clear all hazard trees and limbs near its power lines and denying PG&E executives bonuses unless it meets fire risk reduction targets.
During a two-hour-plus hearing Wednesday morning, PG&E lawyers implored Alsup not to impose such probation conditions, arguing they would do more harm than good.
Like most utility providers, PG&E relies on contracted labor to trim trees. Forcing the company to bring even part of that labor force in house would exhaust its limited resources at a time when the company is working to upgrade its system and push forward an enhanced tree trimming and removal program, PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini said.
"If we have to have PG&E hire them, we have to build the infrastructure, administrative backbone,” Orsini told the judge. “We have to fundamentally change the processes in place now.”
According to Orsini, the company is working with local governments, state agencies and labor unions to recruit more tree trimmers and inspectors amid a nationwide labor shortage in that field. PG&E has also partnered with community colleges to create a tree trimmer and inspector certification program.
The company reported that in 2019 it increased its workforce of contracted tree inspectors from 580 to 1,375 and raised the number of contracted tree trimmers from 1,400 to 5,437.
Despite those arguments, Alsup stayed firm in his belief that the company could benefit from bringing part of that operation in-house.
“You ought to have your own crews and your own trucks in addition to the contractors,” Alsup said.
Turning to the issue of executive bonuses, PG&E attorney Reid Schar argued that decisions on compensation for managers should be left to state regulators, lawmakers and the federal bankruptcy court. He said the state made clear in passing Assembly Bill 1054, which created an insurance fund for future wildfires, that a private utility’s financial viability is a key component of its ability to deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy.
The current proposal calls for the same employee bonus criteria approved last year, which includes 65% focused on safety, 10% based on customer service and 25% for financial performance.
“We don’t know any other utility that does purely 100% safety,” Schar said.
Also on Wednesday, Alsup demanded PG&E address a report of a worn C-hook on a transmission tower close to one where a C-hook snapped in 2018 and caused the most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire.